Spending time outdoors is more important than ever these days. But as summer approaches, there’s a new threat to worry about: bugs. On top of itchy bites, tiny bloodsuckers like mosquitoes and ticks can spread serious diseases.
Enter insect repellents, or your first line of defense against practically any pest you rather avoid. Still, there are tons of repellents to choose from, “and they work to varying levels of effectiveness,” explains Mike Merchant, Ph.D., a professor and urban entomologist at Texas A&M University’s AgriLife Extension Service. Below, everything you need to know to choose an effective bug spray, plus the best ones to stock up on.
What are the best insect repellents?
There are six insect repellents approved by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for use on skin: DEET, picaridin, IR3535, oil of lemon eucalyptus (OLE), para-menthane-diol (PMD), and 2-undecanone. By far, the most popular ingredient is DEET. “It’s a really effective mosquito repellent for a lot of different species,” Merchant says, adding that DEET lasts the longest, too.
That doesn’t mean other ingredients aren’t effective, “it just depends what you’re going to do with [them],” Merchant says. “If you’re going out to work in the garden for 30 minutes, there’s no problem with using a shorter-acting repellent.” (It’s worth noting that OLE is the only “natural” repellent that’s viewed as effective against aggressive insects like ticks.)
Permethrin is another fantastic insect repellent to consider. It isn’t cleared for use on skin, but is approved by the EPA as a clothing treatment (just note you shouldn’t wear the clothes while you’re treating them).
How should you apply insect repellents?
Choose an insect repellent that contains up to 30% of your preferred active ingredient. Repellents containing 10% or less may only protect you for a couple of hours. All EPA-approved insect repellents are cleared for use on skin, so Merchant says you shouldn’t be afraid to use them—as long as you’re following the instructions on the label. (Most will tell you to apply it to your clothing, unless your skin is exposed.)
For kids, the rules are a little different. You should avoid using products containing OLE or PMD for children under 3 years old, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The American Academy of Pediatrics also says that DEET should not be used on kids under 2 months of age. (Children in strollers can be protected with special stroller nets instead.)
How else can you protect yourself from bites?
Wearing potective clothing, like long sleeves and pants, is another way to prevent bug bites, but isn’t always an option when it gets too hot. “You’ve got to wear what you can stand to wear in the summer,” Merchant says.
But if you’re already wearing long pants and tall socks, like hikers do, you can further bug-proof your gear. “We recommend tucking your pants leg into your socks,” Merchant says. For example, “the most common way for a tick to get on you when you’re outdoors is to grab onto your shoe as you’re walking through grass, crawl around, and go up your pants leg.”
Got all that? Good! Now that you’re a pro, stock up on the following expert-recommended insect repellents, which also get a stamp of approval from the EPA:
This traditional spray is formulated with 25% DEET and has a powder-dry finish, so it never feels to oily or sticky. Worried about DEET safety? Rest assured that, unless you’re completely ignoring the directions on the bottle, you don’t have too much to worry about. “Imagine all the summers that people applied [DEET] to their skin,” says Merchant, who notes that the number of issues with DEET is very low.
Wipes are another easy way to apply insect repellent. Repel’s contain 30% DEET and boast an impressive 4.5 out of 5 stars on Amazon, with nearly 900 ratings. Wipes are also much easier to use with young kids, who shouldn’t be sprayed with repellents, according to the CDC.
This DEET-based insect repellent is actually a lotion, which makes it both less smelly and easier to transport than traditional bug sprays. It’s got the maximum amount of DEET recommended by Merchant, and testers rave about its non-greasy, sweat-proof formula.
This new repellent from Ben’s contains 20% picaridin and is formulated to keep ticks at bay for hours. Its fine mist makes the application smooth and mess-free, and you get 6 ounces for less than $10. “I like [picaridin] as an alternative to DEET myself,” Merchant says. “It lasts for a couple of hours and it doesn’t have the smell of DEET.”
Sawyer has a great rep in the bug spray department. This picardin-based insect repellent is long-lasting, fragrance-free, applies clear, rubs in without residue, and can also be used on clothing and gear without damage.
If you’re looking for a more natural (or DEET-free) option, Repel has a great OLE-based repellent. The best part? It smells like lemons instead of that unpleasant bug spray scent you know all too well. Just be sure to test a patch on your skin first, as some people do get allergic reactions or irritations from eucalyptus oil.
Permethrin isn’t approved for use on skin, but it’s an effective clothing-based insect repellent. “You can get up to 30 washes after you’ve applied it to your clothes,” Merchant says. “That’s really good, especially when you get into ticks. It’s good to have that kind of protection on you when you’re in tick country.”
Note: You do not need to go for a higher percentage with permethrin.
If you’ve never given IR3535 a go, this repellent gets the job done. It’s fragrance-free, non-greasy, and dries quickly on the skin. “Just spent a few days in the Montana backcountry... It worked! Surprising, since no other non-DEET repellent I’ve tried actually stopped high altitude mosquitos,” one Amazon reviewer raved.
Another great OLE option, Cutter’s DEET-free bug spray has a natural woodsy scent, goes on clear, and never feels sticky. “It REALLY WORKS at repelling all flying summer bugs including mosquitoes, flies, and gnats,” one reviewer wrote. “I am an outdoor early a.m. gardener, so besides spraying exposed skin, I lightly spray my clothes with this product and there is never a stain and barely the mildest scent.”
For serious insect-fighting power, this permethrin treatment from Repel has you covered. It’s a bit pricier, but remember, you don’t apply this to your skin—but it’s a must on tents, nets, sleeping bags, and backpacks. “If you’re hiking the Appalachian trail, are going on a hunting trip, or are going to be outside wearing the same clothes for a couple of days, treat your clothes with this. It’ll kill ticks, fleas, and mosquitos,” one happy reviewer wrote.